Dreams of High Hall: Notes from the Yorkshire Dales

Up to the top of the fells again today, this time with a pack and a little lunch. I’ve walked about eight miles a day the last few days, with slight variations in my route. Today it was down the A684 road past the renovated stone house, past the little Methodist Church build in 1878 for the railway workers, past the Moorcock Pub, through the gate to the Pennine Bridle Way, through the sheep fields, over the stone bridge across the infant river Eden and up the hills past the cleft in the hill with a stream and a waterfall and up to the big old ruined lime kiln at the base of a limestone outcropping.

Just above the kiln, I go through yet another cattle gate in the dry stone walls, turn right, as I have now for three days running, and start out along Lady Jane’s Highway toward Hell Gill. I keep trying to get all the way to Hell Gill and beyond but I only come close before it’s time to turn back for one reason or another. A few miles beyond Hell Gill is the enticing Pendragon Castle, which dubious legend says was where King Uther, King Arthur’s father, died. As with so many cultural ideas, there are many reasons why it cannot be so, but the idea is so appealing in its beauty that it persists.

The weather today is warming. The rain and cold had persisted ever since we arrived over two weeks ago. The atmosphere continues to settle into my bones like the soft, lilting speech I hear around me at the pub and on the train. The morning had dawned with the blowing misty rain we’d gotten used to, but by noon there were patches of blue sky

The other day I met a local man who was coming through the gate at the top of the hill just as I approached. His black and white border collie came toward me tentatively and circled back as the man closed the gate behind him. We exchanged pleasantries and, as often happens, my accent lead him to ask where I come from. As it turned out his wife is also American. We talked about the Dales and the similarity here to the weather I’ve known in the Pacific Northwest. I asked some stupid questions about the Lady Anne Highway. He answered with great forbearance. He told me that the first two ruins along the way had both been inns when the road was the only one in the area. The first, High Dyke, more tumbled down than the second, had been built in the early 17th century and the second, High Hall, about 100 years later. We went our ways, he with his dog for their second walk of the day up on Lady Anne’s Highway, me down towards the Moorcock Pub as an ending to my afternoon of walking.

Over the days that I’ve walked there, it has been this second ruin, High Hall, that’s come to capture my imagination. Perched there along the ridge above the fells, it had been built right on the high road where the drovers used to drive their sheep to market and everyone had used from time immemorial to travel from one town to another. Lady Anne Clifford (for whom it came to be named) used the road in Shakespeare’s time to travel from her castle in Skipton to her castle, Brougham, in Penrith. High Dyke, the older farm and inn, must have been there along the way. Perhaps she and her retinue stopped for refreshment there or even spent a night.

High Hall was built after Lady Anne’s day, sometime in the early 18th century when the road at the top of the ridge was still the only way to travel from one town to the next. Some of its walls have fallen in, huge stones lying in heaps among the rubble of the roof stones. Other walls remain almost intact.

On the south-west side of the ruin, where the buildings end and the hill falls away, two imposing dry stone pillars frame a spectacular view of the valley, the fells and the limestone cliffs stretching out below in their quiet, misty magnificence. A huge chunk of raw limestone rock perches on each of these high stone posts, their odd, strangely evocative forms the only remaining elements of the ruin that seem ornamental rather than structural. Their presence, so whimsical, is a link across the centuries.

Leaning over the wall on the opposite side of what now is a courtyard bounded by dry stone walls, I can look directly through the opening between the pillars. I stand for long moments lost in the sense of grandeur that huge frame creates. I can feel the life that circulated through these rooms, quiet talk and louder laughter, dogs barking, sheep bleating and people pausing to gaze in thought at this same view, lost in the expanse.

These visions enter my dreams. As I lie in bed waiting for sleep to capture me, I think of what it was like to sleep inside the walls of that house, rough woollen blankets pulled around your chin, the quiet dirt and limestone road just outside the door and the moors stretching down the hillside into the vast valleys, the strength of the stone surrounding you.

Dreaming is deeper here. The dreams go on in ways that can be followed forever through the vast rooms of the unconscious, just as you follow the pathways and climb over the stiles in the vast valleys and fell-sides of the dales, one view giving way to another as dream melts into dream.

Settling

I must say that the Yorkshire Dales is a very odd place to be.  Everywhere else in the world there is heat and fire, smoke and lava, explosions and terrible winds. Here there is quiet.  There is calm expanse. There is earth, stone and water.

On our way here we stopped for a couple of days in London near the huge buildings of Canary Wharf, sheltered in an old stone house near the old docks but surrounded by the intense buzz of the energy of thousands of men and women pursuing money. We walked by the temples of the gods and goddesses: Morgan Stanley, J.P Morgan, City Bank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, HSBC, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, and the other lesser deities. A priestess of Barclays even descended into the bowels of the earth with us, resplendent in her headdress of a thousand tiny blue-black cornrows, her bespoke fingernails each painted with different intricate designs and colors, her clothes like those of the male priests, subdued, beautifully tailored, dark bottom, white top, her designer shoes understated with slender tall heels. She sprinkled us liberally with her grace,  connecting us to her heavens for a few moments then flowing off in a hum of energy, up the escalators to the heights.

 

 

 

Here in the Yorkshire Dales, in Cumbria, and, more precisely, in Garsdale not far from Hawes, there are miles and miles of rolling green and green-brown hills dotted with sheep, cows and grey stone buildings with rain and rain and rain, just warm enough to actually still be pleasant. The air is clear but often foggy. You can breathe long draughts of it, clean and damp.

Through the window in our temporary home in the Railway Cottages I can see the tiny  Garsdale train station platform with its big red Victorian-style lamps.

A train pulls up quietly as I write, barely audible for all its proximity, and I watch a hiker or two come out, settling backpacks on their backs. Off they’ll go across the damp moors where just ten days ago the hot sun of a persistent, unheard of heat wave was still drying the grasses. After a few days of rain that often came down with some force, the streams are rushing high. The waterfalls that run over the shelves of layered limestone that make this scenery so distinctive are frothy and yellow with mud.

Yesterday we took the little white over-priced bus the six miles to Hawes, the village of Wensleydale Cheese and scenes from the old BBC series of All Creatures Great and Small. The nice man at the wheel drove us along the country roads lined with miles of dry stone fences and occasional groves of oak or pine. The countryside that rolled by with its large squares of undulating green went by at such a clip that I felt as if I were along with Toad on his wild ride, Rat waiting for us anxiously back at Toad Hall.

He dropped us off as a favor at the Wensleydale Cheese factory, though it wasn’t strictly on the route. Once there, I tried to get Walter to come into the cheese-making tour and museum, luring him with Wallace and Grommet quotes, but he didn’t make it much past the door. He knows all about cows and milk. He grew up with them.

Our neighbors in the Railway Cottages have a pub and guest house called the Board Inn on the main street of Hawes. We met up there as agreed when I had my fill of Wensleydale Cheese lore. By the time I came in, he was happily eating a toasty sandwich of cheese and onion near the windows and drinking a pint of their best bitter. I joined him, having learned all I could about how to make a somewhat fresh, salty cheese with gallons of raw milk.

The much anticipated Wallace and Grommet exhibit had taken about a minute to absorb. Even so, had I been a kid, I would have opted out of the rest and did what I could to plant myself in front of the screen with a loop of the Wallace and Grommet movies. As it was, I watched a nervous young blond woman demonstrate the steps of Wensleydale cheesemaking to a small room packed with tourists (being careful not to dump the whey all over the floor as she confessed she had once done), peeked into the cheesemaking room where people in white coats and white shoe wrappings worked in a stainless steel environment turning curds, breezed past the Czech tourists fresh off their tour bus, through the “interactive” museum exhibits and popped into the shop to buy some Wensleydale cheese, which like Wallace, I happen to like.

 

Fueled with cheese toasties and British beer, we walked the loop through the village and up and around the fields and river to the hamlet of Hardraw where we stopped for yet another pint at a lovely pub.  Then back to Hawes across the fields and streams. We picked up fruits and vegetables at the greengrocers and other provisions at the Co-op Supermarket and hopped back on the Little White Bus back to the Railway Cottages in Garsdale, the driver not as chatty and driving more slowly at the end of his day.

Now, again, we’re puttering around the cottage with its small, cosy rooms, waiting out the rain. Today it’s evidently part of a tropical storm called Ernesto hanging over a large swath of the British Isles. It’s August and the wind is pushing the driving rain across the moors as it has for a portion of almost every day of the entire week we’ve been here. We could be living in a November in our old home in the Northwest corner of the US were it not for the lingering roses in the garden down the row and the daisies and red campions and rosebay willowherb (what I call fireweed) still blooming in the meadows and the actual warmth of the air most days.

I have adapted to walking on the footpaths and bridle trails across the beautiful moors–to the wet feet, to picking my way around cow patties, sheep dung, mounds of rabbit pellets, bog mud, overflowing streams and puddles. I have learned a lot about sheep from sheer observation. Curious, I am even learning the names of some of the many varieties that graze in the huge expanses of fields and meadows, wet and windblown.

There are the Swaledale with their black faces, white around their noses and eyes with their rams with curling horns like our Mountain Goats back in the Western US. As I walk up a track, I may look up to see a Swaledale ram standing there, looking at me, horns prominent. Matching the brief squirt of adrenaline in my veins, I catch a quick glint in the dark liquid of his cornea as if a neuron were sending out just a spark of an impulse to charge at this intruder. But no, as if the spark had fallen on the wet bog soil,  he walks off quickly, out of my way. Only this season’s young males, still trying to follow their mother for a nip at the teat now and then, butt heads from time to time,  practising the push for hierarchy in their DNA

 

Then there are the big Wensleydale sheep with their grey faces, now shorn but puffy with wool in the winter, never feisty, always eating. There are many more varieties in the Dales, but these two seem to be the ones I encounter most in my ramblings. There will be a sheep demonstration on a Sunday in the field behind the Moorcock Pub where we walk for a pint every few days.  I’ll learn more about those sheep then. We may even go to a demonstration of dry stone wall construction in the nearby town of Hawes the next week. The dry stone walls around here are made of the local limestone as they have been since inhabitants built them as far back as the Bronze Age. They are built and maintained now for the same reasons they were then—to protect the livestock and to establish ownership of the valuable grasslands. 

The walls and virtually all the buildings in the countryside of the Dales are made of the grey-brown stone cropping out of the hills everywhere. What humans have built here seems as much a part of the scenery as the outcrops themselves. Here where the sheep are vigorous and feisty enough to withstand the cold of winter, the walls are close to six feet tall and double walled with ruble in the middle. Where the sheep are more of a docile, low-land sort (as they are in the green lowland fields of Cumberland), the walls are lower. Around the world, dry stone walls have been used to build civilizations and support animal husbandry. For many uses, mortar was unnecessary. The art (as surely it is) of dry stone walling, lost now to our culture, could come in handy in the coming years.

As I walk the footpath that leads out from the Railway Cottages across the rolling moor, over the rushing stream with the waterfall churning with yellow-orange mud, along the path lined with wildflowers now in their last bloom, under a grand, grey stone arch of the Moorcock Viaduct, past the small herd of black and white cows who seem to know me now, I realize I have a different sensation in my body than I have ever really known. It comes from the moors, it’s certain. I’m sure it’s a known thing. It’s a feeling of brown-green calm, a settledness. Whatever I have known as me has combined itself with the rolling expanse of earth, grass and rock and has spread out like soft wet bog. Nothing can disturb it. It is itself and just itself. With this in my veins, maybe I can even return to the work of re-constructing and moving on with the book mostly eaten by my computer last March. I am stolid and accepting like the folks of Yorkshire. Implacable. 

 

Last day in Barcelona: June 13th

Barcelona. Yesterday we spent the much of our day in the beach area of the city, a neighborhood unto itself, Barcoloneta. There the sense of living by the sea infects even the inner neighborhood, removed from the flow of tourists and natives of the city making merry on the beaches. The residents seem to know they are breathing sea air, that the blue of the Mediterranean is just a few blocks on the other side of the high rises.

From the Metro station, we strolled down the wide, palm-lined avenue, with all its tempting restaurants offering fish, tapas and paella, down to the harbor we’d seen the evening before, to the wide, stone-paved parks with magnificent views of the ocean, the cable car up to the nearby hill and the luxury hotels. There next to the beaches people strolled along with us or sat in the shade where tall trees with ferny leaves were dropping their golden-orange flowers to lie like pools of light on the patterned stones.

Then onto one of the wide-spreading beaches, set off from one another by stone breakwaters. The water was astonishingly clear, closer to the color of the water of the Atlantic on the Algarve than to the waters of the posh beaches of the Costa del Sol. The water was so tempting and the atmosphere so free that I took off my shirt and pants and went in for a long and beautiful swim in the calmly lapping waves in my black bra and panties. No one even gave me a sideways glance. We sunned and slept for awhile and bought a watery Mojito and a beer from the beach hawkers in tribute to my son-in-law and daughter, who before they were married, spent a summer hawking coffee and pastries on the beaches of Montpellier.

 

Completely happy and relaxed, we wandered up into the neighborhood for lunch and found a little place in a small plaza next to a schoolyard. As we waited for our grilled salmon plate with roasted vegetables and salad with ficelles, we drank white wine and Estella Damm beer and watched the life of the neighborhood. A Muslim mother in headscarf sat with her twelve-year-old son in the shade, seeming to wait out the lunch hour during one of the final days of Ramadan while children played in the schoolyard on the other side of the wall.

As I watch this calm scene, loud voices suddenly erupt in the small street running alongside the plaza next to the doors of apartment buildings and small shops. A man on a small motorcycle, a woman with long blond hair on the seat behind him, seems to have run into the back of a small white delivery van. The van driver, young, tall and muscular has gotten out and is yelling at the man on the motorcycle, fist raised in the air. The woman has dismounted from the seat on the back of the bike and taken off her helmet, hair cascading down, uncertain what to do. A few men from the shops have come to try to calm the situation, but it continues to escalate, the man on the motorcycle evidently protesting his innocence in louder and louder voice. Since he is smaller than the van driver, the situation seems precarious. Two tall older men physically intervene and seem to suggest to the man that he calm himself, be reasonable and get insurance information from the motorcycle driver.

Walter walks calmly over to the street near them, making a wide circle on the periphery, to see if his assistance might be needed. As he sits there, watching, a man who seems to be an official appears, the situation seems to come to a very uneasy resolution and the van driver gets in and drives around the corner, in front of our restaurant. But he’s only waiting for the man on the motorcycle who foolishly comes around the corner in the same direction. The argument resumes and the men from the neighborhood have to intervene again. The people sitting with us in the cafe have tried to ignore the whole thing but now look in the direction of the dispute which has now moved to a closer stage. They laugh and comment to each other in Catalan. Eventually, both men drive off, perhaps to revenge themselves around some unseen corner.

 Our lunch comes after some time on this beautiful day. We eat with relish and walk back towards the Metro station, past the park we love that stretches with its rows of majestic palms from the Arch de Triumphe at one end to the statue and zoological park at the other.

Today we have a long morning in our hostel and then take the 92 bus a few blocks away in the El Clot neighborhood not far from the Sagrada Familia (which we will not go to see this time) to Park Guell, another unfinished monument to Gaudi At the local bus stop, two older women help us figure out that we are in fact, in the right place, despite the lack of a label for the stop. I now can figure out enough of the Catalan speech (closer to French often than Spanish) to get the gist of their conversation, complaining to each other about the lack of information and the errors in the weather forecast for the day.

I watch the city go by through the windows of the bus, the beautiful Cathedral de San Juan unfolding its astonishing architecture in the moments of passing. I won’t be able to explore it this time. Perhaps if we return. We get out with two young Asian men at the stop for Park Guell and cross over the avenue with the rest of the crowd. All around us flows a soup of different languages—French, Spanish, English, Catalan, perhaps Persian–all probably questioning and responding in their isolated attempts to decipher the same system—the system that defends the entry into this famous place. The guards answer the same questions over and over, pointing again and again in the direction of one line or another.

The internal part of the park is the prize since it contains the only completed buildings of this intended community for the elite of Barcelona, started back when the twentieth century was new. Tickets weren’t available till the evening so we decided not to bother and, instead, climbed around the beautiful park outside the community, up the winding paths and stone stairs to the top where we stood, like the many tourists taking selfies, in awe of the view of the whole, enormous, complicated city, capital of Catalonia, stretched out to the blue Mediterranean there before us. There were the mud-dripped spires of Sagrada Familia Cathedral complete with towering cranes and scaffolding and there the “Barcelona Tower” phallically gleaming proudly nearby, there the jumble of apartment buildings, new and old, most with red tiled roofs, the huge old graceful government buildings, the old churches and cathedrals, the streets winding through—the whole diverse complexity of it.

All the way up there on the top of that small mountain was a neighborhood school, the kids noisily playing in the schoolyard perched here high in strange juxtaposition to all these people from foreign places admiring the view.

Barcelona is like this, life going on in every direction, just regular life, seemingly rather joyous life. We wound back down, me buying a bird whistle from one of the immigrant vendors hawking wares for a Euro or two, taking a video of the young Indian singer with sitar, Walter stopping to ask the attendants at the gate to the inner sanctum about the ongoing reconstruction of the arched entryway, and finally finding the source of the loud chattering in the tall palm trees lining the pathways—bright, iridescent green parrots, another exotic variety of life’s forms, fit for this city of mixtures.

Back down we went into the city in the district of Gracia, really a town in itself, a bit quieter in its old streets than other sections of town, but still alive, and on down to the Metro Station to find our way back to our temporary home.

Later in the night, after a rest and some food, I wonder out to get some groceries for the morning and decide to explore the neighborhood in its night dress. Many small restaurants and tavernas are still open, some with tables on the street or the plaza. An old couple walks by holding hands on one of the tiled streets where cars rarely venture. They stop for a moment, the woman turning to the man, looking up into his face and saying something earnestly—I make out only “Claro.” She seems satisfied. He smiles and they walk on. As at any time of the day or night, parents go by with children in strollers or walking alongside, now a bit more subdued than during the day, but still out and about. A young woman goes by on a skateboard, skillfully gliding and turning.

I walk to the little plaza a couple of blocks from the wide Avenida de Meridiana where people still fill the two cafes of outdoor tables and umbrellas. In the middle of the plaza, folding tables are set up and Arabic music plays on loudspeakers. It is the penultimate night of Ramadan and a local group of Muslims has set up an Iftar meal to share with the community.

Women in headscarves, young men and children are serving themselves and passersby from kettles of stew, plates of flatbread and urns of sweet mint tea. Night has truly fallen now and people are beginning slowly to disappear from the square. I stop and wish some of the young women in headscarves a good Eid tomorrow and take some delicious tea from the older man who stands ready to pour. They find one of the women who speaks English to translate my message and they all smile and say thanks. The food is almost gone. Some of the group begin to clean up and load things into a van parked nearby. Others dump the refuse of their evening’s work into the big nearby garbage and recycling receptacles that conceal deep holes underneath, a ubiquitous part of the modern overlay of this old city.

The plaza and the streets leading into it are dotted with benches in small groups, some facing into the street, some into the plaza, all still filled with people out in the cooling night air, talking together animatedly. Friends walk up to join them, some greeting each other with energy, kissing on both cheeks before sitting on a bench opposite to chatter. A gay couple walks by, arm in arm down a quiet part of the street, one carrying a bag of groceries dangling from his free hand. People stand in doorways smoking, some alone and gazing into the distance, some talking with a friend.

Tomorrow morning the real buzzing life of the city will resume. Just before dawn, sometime around five-thirty, the rumble of the metro will resume periodically like muted peals of underground thunder below the endless apartment buildings. Small cars and vans will whiz by on the wide avenues, knowing when to stop for pedestrians crossing at places with no traffic lights. Bikes will speed by with their varieties of riders, women in dresses, sports riders with helmets, young men going from one part of the city to another sweaty and smiling or determined and driven, some tourists on rented bikes. Motorcycles and motor scooters will zoom by in troops, some weaving gracefully in and out of the traffic, driver with one foot out, ready to stop at a moment’s notice. Motorized scooters will whiz smoothly around the turns from avenue into avenue, somehow keeping up with the rest of the traffic. Old women and men on motorized wheelchairs will occasionally drive with confidence ahead of flex buses, seemingly fragile yet somehow protected. Workmen will start their drilling and banging and pouring of concrete with clouds of dust that pedestrians flow around, accustomed to the practice.

And in the morning we will pack again, something we now know how to do now with efficiency, and take the Metro to Barcelona Sants train station to catch the TGV bound for Paris. We will get out at Narbonne, France and transfer to a train to Carcassonne. There we will start the adventure of settling in a new land. I am trying to start thinking in French.

Seville, Andalucia: The FIrst Night

Somehow Memorial Day passed in the US without any ripple in the rest of the world. Spain. After living in Portugal for three weeks we are in Spain. The difference is immediate. Seville. The land of the mantilla, the bull fight and evidently Catholicism. This is where the Inquisition started and today, nuns walking the streets in a much more evident way than in the devout land of Portugal, we have arrived, unawares, for the region’s most important religious holiday.  Half the people of the city of Seville seemed to be ducking into one of the churches on every other street, churches that seem to hide behind walls and blossoming on the inside, to take some special communion of the Eucharist of something unknown to me.

As we sit in the late afternoon at a table on the sidewalk at one of the innumerable cafes, drinking a beer, the breeze blowing, cool. Two nuns walk by in habits, one very small, perhaps a dwarf, the other, tall and dark skinned. I see the small one only from the back, her shoes sturdy and brown just where her skirts end. She is surging ahead, almost dancing. The tall one strides to keep up and I see the side of her face, smiling as she turns up a street towards the opening of a church enclave. She is pleased to be with her friend. Somehow, I have no idea how, it brings back the memory of two horse-drawn carts full of gypsies we saw trotting at a fast pace up the hill past the Intermarche Hipermarket in Lagos one morning as we waited for the bus. Each cart carried five or six people, all adjusting themselves getting ready for what awaited them of the day, one or two faces with expressions of irritation, everyone somehow in motion, urging the horse or tying a skirt, adjusting their position next to their brother or sister or uncle or aunt. We waited a while longer for the bus. After some time, another cart came by up the hill at full tilt with a young man tossing the reins, late for wherever the others were going.

It is 10:30 and we are in bed in our hotel and since 8 pm, marching bands have been parading through the streets in some magnificent battle of the bands in honor of something, which I presume to be associated with a saint. It is a community. We don’t have this where I come from.

Since at least 7:30, the whole city has been alive, having nothing to do with this festival.  I have discovered it is the lead up to the day of Corpus Christi, practically the biggest holiday of the year.  We have stumbled on this huge festival in Seville, totally ignorant. The city is packed. Thursday it is the holiday itself, starting with a mass in the morning at the huge Cathedral of Seville,  Tonight, there are people out on the streets everywhere. Every other taverna and restaurant, of which there seem to be thousands, is packed with people drinking wine, sangria and beer and eating tapas but mainly talking and talking and talking…and laughing. And there is music from many places. Everyone who is not sitting with people in a cafe or talking with someone they’ve run into on the streets is walking down the street or stopped leaning against a wall talking to someone on their cellphone. Sometimes someone sings somewhere.

The bell in the nearby church just tolled eleven times. The street has gone quiet. It seems everyone has just gone in to bed. There will be stragglers, odd young couples having stayed late with friends, coming back across the cobbles, talking softly.

Otherwise, there will be garbage trucks during the night, a motorcycle here and there till early morning. Tomorrow summer may come to the Andalouse. There will be more parades in the street at odd times. More displays going up in unpredictable places on the streets, dark red velvet banners hung from balconies. The streets will be crowded, cars and motorcycles driving every which way, backing up, trying to negotiate corners never meant for cars, even tiny ones. 

The Countryside of the Algarve

It’s been two weeks and a bit more since we closed the deal on the farm. We’re on the train in Evora, Portugal, waiting for it to leave the station. It will leave on time. We know that from experience now. The trains and buses run on time in Portugal. Two couples from Iowa have met each other in the station and are talking about their families at the front of the car. The flavor of home. The accents stand out for me as if the words were written in cartoon bubbles with caricatures of Americans speaking their lines.

Our two days in Evora gave us the flavor of the place, saturated with the sounds and smells of pouring thunder and lightning storms, purple jacaranda blossoms set delicately against both blue skies and grey, and an occasional orange tree still in bloom, the fragrance from just a few blossoms seeping secretly into our nostrils as we walked past, intoxicatingly sweet.

For us, it was not a place for sight-seeing. We stayed in a hostel tucked away in a courtyard near an old church, slept, ate and took walks to get acquainted with our surroundings. We found the ruins of the Roman temple in the middle of town and near it a lovely park with a view over the countryside where tourists and townspeople alike gravitated in the late afternoon during a wonderful interval of sunshine and clear air. Praca do Giraldo with its fountain, church, banks, cafes, pastry shop, and mysterious large lump of marble in the shape of some strange part of a human limb led into streets lined with luxury shops where people from the countryside come to do a little window shopping and be enticed to buy the things their small towns can’t provide. The tourists, too, help support this flow of cash into the regional hub.

One of the hosts at the hostel, Margarida, lives with her husband on a farm 30 kilometers from town. Just like back at home, it seems that farmers need to supplement their income with a job in town. She talked about the pigs, sheep, goats and horses and the grain they grow to help feed them. Yesterday the thunderstorms, evidently rare here, finally made it to her farm and “only my farm” where the all the dogs suddenly whined and barked to come into the house all at once. “Terrible!” she said. “Too much rain!” “The climate is changing!”

The conversation shifts from this pivot point to a discussion of the politics of our respective nations. I say that I am already forgetting Trump. She commiserates with my difficulty but says, “He is president because enough people voted for him. Here, we did not get the president the people would have voted for. We elect our assembly. Since some Communists got into the assembly the government had to make a coalition. The leader they selected isn’t one the people would have voted for directly. It doesn’t feel like a real democracy.”

I didn’t go into the reasons the government of the US doesn’t seem like a democracy either, but we agreed on the importance of government taking care of the most basic rights of human life—education of its young people and care for the health of all. She is clear that her country does these things well. I tell her that many Americans fear the nationalization of health care, scared that it will lead down the road to the nationalization of all services and therefore to Communism. She replies, “Maybe it’s just because I’m a European. I believe these things should be a function of the government. They are basic rights. People here believe that with me.”

Now we’re passing a small town where the oak trees of the rolling plains seem to congregate at the boundaries and a huge stork is perched on top of a palm tree next to the ruins of a stone house. Suddenly, I wonder how I could be doing this. How I can be free of jobs, home, possessions, stability, taking a train through a countryside I never thought I’d see. The first night in Evora when the rain streamed down outside our open french doors and the thunder crashed, I cried as if I were the emotion of the storm itself, streaming, exploding, subsiding again. I let it come. The second night I slept soundly until the early morning when the church bells rang five times in the dry, dark air before anything else seemed to be stirring. Margarida insists on driving us to the train station and won’t accept money for gas. We have a pastry and coffee while we wait and then climb aboard our first train of the day.

While we wait for our connecting train in Pinhal Novo, we start up a conversation with a retired couple from Wisconsin at the station cafe when we share a moment of delight watching an old man ride an electric tricycle up the marble ramp in the station, swerving playfully a bit from side to side as he went smoothly out of sight at the top.

They and another couple are also heading to Lagos. We carry our conversation to the platform where we all wait for the train, commenting on the concrete rails on the train track. Turns out the husband worked on the railroad In Colorado one summer during college, laying track. He notices these things now. After that, he was clearly a professional of some kind. We never talked about what we had done to make our livings.

He talks instead about the fifty acres of former farmland they bought when they moved out of town some years ago. It’s about 30 miles south of Madison WI.  I tell them that, coincidentally, this is not far from where I lived  out in the country in 1976, when I was starting graduate school at the Univesity of Wisconsin in Madison. They are intrigued.  We talk about how they’re trying to return their land to prairie and struggled for the first years with the brome grass the farmer had planted to counter erosion. I learned that this kind of grass creates a sterile environment where nothing nests or feeds. They burned it two years in a row and pulled it from everywhere that it mounted its invasions. Now they’re hiring someone to come in and plant a mixture of prairie remnant seeds, heavy on the milkweed to encourage the Monarch butterfly population. When they moved there they’d discovered that, to their surprise, the land around them was owned by people with similar interests. We talk about racoon, orchards, deer and sustainable agriculture until the train pulls up. Nice folks. We could know them. There are so many people we could know.

What kind of home will we have tonight in Lagos? Who will we meet? What will it look like around us in the town? Nothing is determined. A few small things are beginning to come into focus about the people and the country where we travel. What I am doing here is still one of the unknowns. To travel and then return to a familiar life is one thing. To travel in order to create a new pattern is another.

The sun was out in Pinhal Nouvo. Now from the train window the rolling hills, covered with tufts of low oaks and some taller pines, are shrouded with mist. There are no dwellings in sight anywhere. Even in this country, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania and much denser in the webs of its history, there is seemingly endless countryside.

The Mysteries of Porto and Coimbra, Portugal

The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.

This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.

Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I,  waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.

Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage  between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.

As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.

But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.

 

 

In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.

 

 

 

Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.

Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.

What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.

The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.

Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.

This way. Come!

An eagle came to perch on the upper branches of the cottonwood tree on the farm that would soon no longer be our home. It was a magnificent bird, mature, head strong and white as white. It was watching, head turned towards the house as we sat in our bare dining room on the only chairs left in the house, looking out on our penultimate evening to the barn where the setting sun had once again turned the fir planks a soft lavender. Our purple barn. As I went out across the yard to get one of the last boxes from the barn’s huge dim interior, the huge eagle, still in the cottonwood, called its screeching call, piercing notes echoing slightly in the cooling air.

We worked steadily from early the next morning till late that next night, emptying the last things from the house, and then the last things after that, hauling them to the small storage space or the dump. Then cleaning the house. The weeds in the garden wanted to be pulled, but I passed them by as I walked to the mailbox, ignoring their cries. The rose bushes wanted to be pruned of their winter damage and those that climbed, tied again against their supports, but I told them they would have to wait for someone else to guide them.

Exhausted, working till the last minute, we drove away down the road to our friends’ lavender farm a half mile away. We pulled up the drive behind the lavender fields to the little trailer the sister had parked next to her rescue cows and hauled our last boxes and bags into the tiny space to sort during the next twenty-four hours. Our friends down the road had invited us all for dinner and, after a quick rest in our little haven, we drove there to sit in the garden and watch the evening spread over the white volcano in the distance. On the way back to the trailer after dinner, we passed our usual turn to the farm—home. It hit me unexpectedly–right in the chest. “We’re never going home to our bed.” I tried to choke back the tears but they came of their own volition, hard, breathless. “I knew this was coming,” I said. “I knew it would hit me at some point. I just didn’t know when.”

In our bed in the little trailer after an exhausted short sleep, I awoke to swirling fears, a seemingly endless expanse of dark possibilities, ruin, homelessness. I pulled the thoughts in. I made them hush themselves in the darkness and I went deeply into my heart and the heart of that huge expanse. I went deeper and deeper, wider and wider into the silence.

By the time the first birds began to chirp, the ones that see the light with some inner eye before the sun’s rays begin to penetrate, I was ready to fall into sleep. “You’ve done the work. Now rest.” I slept and dreamed and woke up to the soft sounds of cows munching grass and geese calling as they flew towards the fields beyond, I calmly joyous, ready to laugh.

And here we are on a plane flying over Manitoba, lakes and square fields patterned on a tapestry rug below. I’m thinking how I woke this morning for the second time, after getting up in the night to attend to all the last minute things I hadn’t been able to do, to the chattering cries of another eagle, unseen, somewhere to the morning side of the little trailer. A joyous rousing. A call to come and take part in this marvellous moment. So I did. And made coffee. And smiled at Walter who was turning over to sleep just a little while longer.

And as our friend drove across the border to Canada and up the highway in British Columbia on our way to the airport, two more eagles, one soon, one later, flew across our path and north, their white heads shining. “Come,” they seemed to say, “This way. Come.”

The Going Out

 

 

 

Now it’s a rush of wings, a flight towards an open door. The farm is sold, all but the signing on the dotted line. The airline tickets are bought and paid for. The objects that remain must be dealt with, each held in the hand and a decision made—in the trash, to a friend, in one of the few boxes for a small storage space, in the small suitcase. Overwhelming.

But soon everything will be done. The things designated or sold will have to be dispersed within days, the eyes looked into so many times looked into again, deeply for a moment, and the body that somehow contains that world held close and then released, the ache of longing coming to take up residence in my heart.

We will be homeless for now. All that we retain must be needed either for the journey of a few months or for the time when we will send a few boxes across a continent and an ocean to a place where we will settle again, perhaps grow some vegetables, plant some fruit trees and live for however many days we have.

Just as when we leave this body, we must discover what is important to retain, what is most precious. What we hold on to is not what we think we might possibly need someday, the insurance against some contingency, but what clings most adamantly to our essence. Over these past few weeks when things have come in a flood, wiping away every moment of space in the time of my days, it is my writing that I have yearned for from waking to sleeping. It has become an essential element of life, as necessary as the act of participation, the absorption of all that beauty in whatever combinations of elements await me in that time between the opening of my eyes from the world of dreaming and when they close at night.

One type of waiting may be over, but another more encompassing period of waiting remains. That waiting before the going out, that waiting each day for the closing of the eyes, the dreams, the deep quiet, the encompassing silence, the loss of all objects that cling, all thoughts that stick to the space of the mind, all emotions that swim in our waters. Gone. Gone. Letting it go.

A Window in Time (Part 5): Greece, The Arrival

There is a purpose to this exercise. It is an exploration of that interior space where imagination and memory meld their etheric essence. It is a practice, a meditation.

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We were gliding. It was a big boat, full of people but, although they must have rocked us gently, the waves meant nothing. Once we were away from the busy harbor with its sandstone and buff-painted buildings shining along the shores, it was only the presence of dark blue sea and islands, first in a kind of mist on the horizon and then in the bright glare of the full day’s southern sun, gliding past like mythic backdrops. Lovers leaned against each other on the benches on deck. Children ran with a parent in their wake. I was already entranced.

The four of us claimed two benches linked back to back by spreading out our meager gear, sitting near a young man carrying a guitar without a case. We sat together or walked when we felt the urge, our Greek friend chatting with other passengers from time to time, interpreting for the rest of us in mixtures of French and English. As the sun set and the night sky thick with stars emerged, the sea around us became infinite, pricks of pure white light in swaths poking through the black ink.

All the other visions of that journey are lost in that spreading well of night. When consciousness returns, we have made our way from Patras to Athens, most likely on a bus that went for hours through the night. My fresh, sharp senses were filled with the incredibly sweet fragrances of the countryside of Greece—the smell of grapes and jasmine mingled with the scents of roasting lamb and garlic and rosemary. It was a revelation that awakened something deeply joyful in the middle of my chest and spread a wash of light in my head. And then we were there, in Athens, Syntagma Square in August of 1969.

We naively had waltzed, as young Americans could, into a country that, with the tacit approval of the CIA and the American government, had been under the rule of a right-wing military junta since 1967. The huge photos of its appointed Prime Minister, Papadopoulos, dominated the square and were present everywhere. Back at home,  concentrated on the war in Vietnam, finishing our high-school years, we had no awareness of the iron rule of military law in this country rarely discussed in the news, the torture going on its jails, the exile of countless journalists and politicians and the repression of civil rights. Now it was jarring, somehow inexplicable in the context of this city both modern and ancient.

In Athens itself, what evidence existed of this horror was behind closed doors. The atmosphere in the streets seemed flowing and free. It was not until we travelled with our Greek friend to his hometown south of Athens that we began to feel the palpable pressure of repression.

In the heat of the full day, our friend led us through the huge square to one of the spreading streets leading away from the vast open space into the wide avenues of the city. On the ferry, he had told us of his plan to stay a couple of nights at–of all places–the YMCA of Athens. the safest and cleanest cheap place to stay. He asked us to join him. He had stayed there many times before on his way from the ferry to his family home in Glyfada.

He navigated us down the sidewalks of Stadiou Avenue, lined with tall white business buildings, and into another street that began to feel more contained–first-floor shop doors opening one after another into small groceries, restaurants, clothing shops, cafes partially filled with people. It was not a city of crowds, but yet had a sense of a vibrant humming of human life. We were tired and hungry. It was almost unbearably hot, well over a hundred degrees. The pavement oozed with the smells of concrete and asphalt and piss, the beautiful smell of roasting meat and garlic wafting from somewhere on the sides on every block.

One more turn and down the street. In front of us gleamed, in the hot sun of the late afternoon, a three or four story building with many windows, modern, lined at street level with white pillars–the Y. We checked in at a desk on the first floor and paid for four beds, two in a women’s room and two in a men’s.

My blond friend and I climbed the white wide stairs up to the big room where several beds were made up with simple coverlets and pillows. We seemed to have the place to ourselves. It was stifling hot, with a ceiling fan turning slowly and big windows facing out onto the air above the street, open on their sashes as far as they could go. Everything seemed to be white and spacious, the heat, the walls, the beds, the sounds of traffic and occasional shouting voices in the streets, horns, the pulsing ambulance sound of European cities. It felt like swimming in waves of heat, wanting badly to come up for air. We lay down on two of the small beds near a window in this sauna of white light and sweated into a drowsy state and then sleep.

We may have slept on and off until a hot morning light seeped into our confused washed-out heat dreams. We dressed and went downstairs to the cavernous cafeteria. Our two friends were already sitting at a table with bowls and plates of food spread in front of them. Our curly headed Greek/English friend, Ion, playing host in this country of half of his DNA, came over to show us how to order. There were ceramic pots of white yogurt with a skim of yellowish cream on top, figs, grapes, white bread in hefty slices, pats of butter, honey in a pot to drizzle by the spoonful on the warm bread, and cups of hot Turkish coffee. The yogurt was the creamiest, smoothest, most deliciously tangy sweetness I have tasted in this life. We ate well, enjoying the bounty of cheap fresh food, chatting about plans.

We were only there for a day and another night. We chose to go directly to the Parthenon.

As we walked out the front door onto the street, the force of the heat hit with all its weight. Though still fairly early in the day, the newspaper vendor where Ion stopped for a copy of the English language newspaper told him that the thermometer had already hit 43 degrees Celsius. As we had travelled across Southern France and then Italy, I had begun to shift my sense of the relative temperature scale and now could gage that anything over 32 was really uncomfortable. This was already orders of magnitude above that tipping point.

We walked along wide avenues and then down more winding streets, older, more packed-in, the huge rock of the Acropolis topped by the graceful columns of the Parthenon always within view, always a presence, the orientation point of the universe of this strange jumble of a city, messier and more complex as it approached that nexus.

We wandered, stopping to look at vendors’ stalls, talking as we walked about our trip to Ion’s hometown on the coast the next day. I was young. I remember little of the heat’s oppression, but I do see the steps up the side of the huge rock cliffs as we began our climb to the Acropolis, the height stretching upwards, Ion translating the remarks of a Greek family, also climbing, that the thermometer had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  On another day, a climb that would have meant little to bodies still unaccustomed to limits now felt almost insurmountable under the burden of the sun’s fire.

But here we were at last at the feet of the Parthenon. Breathless with the climb, we stopped for long moments to adjust our senses to the vastness of this spreading plaza, seemingly littered with huge boulders, broken columns and monumental marble buildings, partially in ruins. The sense of ancient beauty, ancient poetry, was like a fragrance of light incense over everything, wafting up and disappearing in a miasma in the burning heat. The etheric beauty of yesterday’s trip over the deep blues of the sea, the islands purple as we watched them glide by, still present like a refreshing taste on the tongue, offset the heat and the enormity of the climb upwards, even in its subtlety. 

It seems to me that the same self that I can touch now was stirring deep inside, gathering itself still, soaking in through skin dripping with sweat the experiences swirling around it, rather astonished as always to be there, as to be anywhere on earth.

As we had climbed, the image of the Parthenon floating somewhere behind my eyes was a presence well before we emerged at the top of the hill, a plane of rocks, columns and carved human forms. As we took the last steps, it felt as if we were emerging from a dark sea into the air above. That climb, that emerging from a place of rough, heated rocks and sweaty effort to a level place with stretching vista has echoed in my dreams, transforming over time.

And then there it was, huge, spreading in the near distance before us, a perfect rectangle somehow still despite what had fallen or crumbled from its remains. A symmetry of suggested space, looming there against the bright blue sky, it existed in a place in time and space that was mysteriously part of a continuity of the universe within, vast, containing now the turquoise sea, the fragrances of jasmine and grape, the sounds of waves, the smells of a classroom now in some time past, the call of the voices of strangers, the pricks of light in the ink of night.

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A Window in Time (Part 4): Race Across Italy

 

We moved up the road a bit to be out of the crowd of people trying to find a ride over the border into Italy. The weather I remember was that perfect temperature of the Mediterranean at the height of summer, the light the perfect light of the coast, bright yet full of contrast. We were content to just lean against a guardrail and wait. I was the one to stick out my thumb at the roadside, a young blond woman in shorts.

It may have been hours. It may have been minutes. A medium sized truck stopped and motioned for us to climb in. We gathered our things quickly and jumped into the back which was all packed with sacks. As we started through the border, I could see the Italian Carabinieri standing in groups on the other side with their high brimmed hats, dark blue uniforms and white bandoliers across their chests. They looked distinctly threatening, like holdovers from Fascist times. I braced for barks of authority as we reached the customs booth. But all went well. We jumped down off the end of the truck and presented our passports. They were duly stamped by officials who smiled and said “American, ha!” as they looked from my face to the passport. We climbed back in, Michel waving to a group of Carabinieri as we passed. They smiled. He said, “They actually look friendly!” “We’ll see.” I said.

The next two or three days are a blur in my mind’s eye. We must have taken the faster autoroute, the A-10 up away from the coast, bypassing around mountain towns. I remember only miles and miles of hills full of dark trees, small fields up against grape vineyards, and small towns with red-tiled-roofed houses in what must have been Liguria. And then into the region of olive groves, through to Bologna. Somewhere along the way that first day we got a ride with a truck carrying local table grapes to market. The drivers let us sit in back with the roll-up door open and motioned with hand gestures for us to eat all we wanted. We sat with our backs braced on crates of grapes, comfortably watching the scenery unwind behind us, eating grapes and throwing stems out the open back. I remember the fragrance of the grapes and washing our sticky hands with water from a big plastic bottle but nothing more.

We must have gotten stuck in Bologna for awhile, waiting for a ride on the outskirts of town. We never went into any of the cities we passed. There was no time. We had to make our rendezvous for the ferry in Bari in two more days. We ate what we had in our packs and snacks bought at wherever our rides happened to stop. There were long periods of waiting by the road. It is all a blur except for one night spent in a grape vineyard.

It must have been late evening when we stopped travelling, dropped off by the last ride of the day. We looked around in our darkening surroundings and saw we were on the edge of a large vineyard. The soil under the vines was smooth and inviting. The ground felt cool after the heat of the day. Tired out, we walked back into the rows out of sight of the road and spread our woollen bags under the vines.

The soil was soft and fluffy, a perfect place to stretch out in relative comfort. We had no consciousness of the probable toxic herbicides and fungicides we were breathing in the dust. Lulled to sleep by the surrounding silence and the new fragrance of ripening grapes, we slept soundly until morning light.

There is nothing else I remember of our journey across Italy, although there must have been some difficulties. Maybe it was just problems getting rides that stretched out the time, but we were late for our rendezvous in Bari. The day must have arrived when we were still at some distance down the A14. We must have been worried. Our friends might have bought tickets already for the ferry, counting on us to arrive as planned. If we were late, would they leave? I’m sure we doubted that, yet there would always have been some tiny element of uncertainty. Our mode of transportation meant we had no control over the speed of travel. I faintly remember some irritability between us as we stood by the side of the road for hours with cars passing us.

When we finally arrived in Bari, we were twelve hours late. My memory is filled only with the large concrete buildings around the ferry dock, large boats in the harbor. It was morning when we finally got out of our final ride, the morning after the departure of the ferry we’d planned to take. We found our friends rather quickly in the waiting area for the ferry. As soon as we spotted them, we ran across the hall calling to them and hugging as we met. There were apologies and stories of the days we’d spent apart. They were clearly also road-weary eyes, anxious glances, hair a bit uncombed. It must have seemed to all of us, standing there together, that we were looking into some strange mirror. When they had finally realized we were not arriving for the ferry the night before, they knew they must spend the night in Bari, but by that time there were no hotel rooms available. They had managed to stay in the small apartment of an odd man from Romania they’d met at the ferry terminal. They’d had been glad to make it safely through the night and out early in the morning.   As part of the tumbling stories, they told us that the next ferry for Greece wouldn’t leave for another few days. We would have to travel down the coast to Brindisi where a ferry left the next day for our destination, Patras, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea.

Michel, now torn with the prospect of going to Greece, decided he did, in fact, need to get back to Strasbourg and see his family for the rest of the summer. He had promised. He left us that day on a bus, hoping to see us once more in Paris at the end of our trip. It was never to be. That was the last we ever saw of him, waving goodbye from the window of the bus, standing in the aisle, tanned but with tired eyes, crouched over a woman in the seat.

Now it was just the three of us, standing there suddenly feeling a bit shy of each other, strangest for me to be alone with my friend and this man I had know for only a day or two. I remember the run into the ferry terminal from our last ride, bags flapping around our shoulders, the wait on the line of people boarding with bags of grapes, bottles of wine and suitcases, duffles and backpacks—families with several children, couples old and young, young Greek men returning home from some job abroad, jovial and rowdy, a few young Greek women with a grandmotherly looking figure with a shawl, a group of tourists, shepherded by a young woman speaking English—a whole crowd all flowing up onto the three deck ferry, heading out across the wine dark sea.

The wine-dark sea. The peace that passeth understanding. The passage to the land of myth, the land of heroes would be a long one. We wandered with the crowd looking for a place to sit and spread out our gear. There was a quick consensus that the top deck was the best place to be. From there we would see the sea and the islands as we steamed along and feel the fresh air in the possibly bumpy waters of the Ionian. We found a bench next to a big metal box full of life jackets and settled down as the huge ferry pulled away from the dock. From where we sat, we watched as the multicolored two and three-story stucco buildings moved by us, gleaming from the shore and we passed through the wakes of the tall-sailed blue, red and green yachts in the harbor out into the more open turquoise water.